Many things in our country had to be changed, corrected and restored after 16 years of authoritarian rule and decision-making by the last government.
We have started to address and implement a large number of these since your People’s Coalition came to office in late December.
This month has seen three key decisions take effect.
We introduced for the first time an annual holiday to honour the early Girmitiyas and their descendants comprising about 32 per cent of our population.
Last week the Great Council of Chiefs was reborn after being closed down by the former rulers.
Today we officially revive the annual celebration to mark the life and achievements of Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna. It had been removed for no reason from the national calendar.
It is my honour to share this message about a high chief who truly belongs in our pantheon of leaders.
In Ratu Sukuna’s case his inherent intelligence and abilities came with all the mana and authority of those born into the ranks of chiefly leadership. He was widely respected and revered. To some he was a virtual demigod.
There is plenty of coverage and comment in the media about the diverse details of his outstanding career.
I will concentrate in this message on just two aspects of his storied life.
• How, through his patient application of chiefly persuasion, the indigenous people agreed to relinquish control of their land to a special board set up by the government. Their decision was unprecedented. It brought extensive benefits to the nation and created a foundation for nationhood and development.
• His exploits in the First World War, touching on the deeds and fears of the 27-year-old who elected to go to the front line in one of the world’s most devastating wars. I have included some of his experiences as a soldier not usually covered in mainstream media. When you read these you will recognize the extent of his heroism.
Ratu Sukuna saw with clarity that the arrival and settlement of the Girmitiya from India had transformed Fiji into a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country.
He knew the ethos and functions of government should be adapted to meet the livelihood needs of the Girmitiya descendants, many of whom were farmers.
Their ability to thrive for the long term would depend on their continued access to land.
The high chief had to balance these realities with the Fijian right of ownership over land that, to them, was “absolute and indestructible”.
In the Legislative Council in October 1933, Ratu Sukuna highlighted that the Indian agricultural community was Fiji’s greatest producer of sugar, central to the country’s biggest and most stable industry.
The Girmitiya descendants had provided a “striking demonstration” of what individual effort in agriculture could achieve in the face of many obstacles.
The Indian community, he said, was undoubtedly a great economic asset to the colony and their aspirations and interests were of vast importance to all.
Ratu Sukuna, speaking as a member of the Council of Chiefs, pronounced, “…we regard the Indian desire for more permanent tenancy as a natural and legitimate consequence of an agricultural community settling in any country”.
He added that the Council of Chiefs and the “new Fijian liberal element” would favourably consider setting aside tracts of land for the settlement of those Indians dispossessed through the also legitimate desire of the landowners to take up economic cultivation.
In a 1936 speech to the Council of Chiefs, Ratu Sukuna emphasized that the foremost consideration of any Fijian is land; it was also the basis of happiness.
He went on to praise the Indians who were continuously striving to better themselves. They shouldered many burdens that helped Fiji…much money had been derived from them from rent. A large proportion of Fiji’s prosperity came from their labour.
Ratu Sukuna drew on the Biblical story of the talents.
“Whosoever utilizes what is given him will be given more. He who fails to use what he has will lose all that he hath.”
He asserted it was the bounden duty of landowners to utilize what they possessed for the benefit of all. He argued that should a landowner’s holding be more than he could utilize, he should lease the surplus to those who could make use of it.
In the same meeting of the Council of Chiefs, Ratu Sukuna stressed: “It is our unanimous desire that Fijians should thrive and grow in education. We wish them to earn and save money, to use their lands, and to live peacefully with all. Hence it is our duty to show those who we lead the straight and narrow path. We cannot, in these days, adopt an attitude that will conflict with the welfare of those who, like ourselves, wish only to live peacefully and increase the wealth of the colony. We are doing our part here and so are they. We wish to live; they do the same…if other communities are poor, we too remain poor.
If they prosper, we also will prosper.”
Ratu Sukuna was setting the scene for what was to follow.
There was a major problem that also influenced his thinking. The system of leasing out native land was often chaotic, haphazard and corrupt. This was another pressing reason for the reform he was now thinking about.
He started talking to the colonial government hierarchy and a plan took shape. It was innovative and unique and won the backing of the Council of Chiefs.
Ratu Sukuna then began what was to become a mighty effort to achieve community-wide agreement on a critical national issue. Nothing like it had ever been attempted in Fiji or the British Empire.
The high chief embarked on a campaign to visit all the Fijian provinces, convening meetings in village after village. Sometimes he travelled by road. But more often he ventured by foot along tracks and pathways. Punts or horses were used when necessary.
Ratu Sukuna talked to the villagers, sometimes long into the night, about surrendering control of their land to a new board to be formed by the government. It would take responsibility, on their behalf, for leasing and managing the land. He spoke with calm deliberation and patience.
On occasion he would make return visits to certain villages where doubts persisted and go over the same issues again and again.
Then, finally, it was done. He had negotiated a consensus that applied to every landowning unit. It was a monumental accomplishment.
In 1940 the Legislative Council approved the Native Land Trust Board Act. Authority for dealing with native land was to be vested in the new Native Land Trust Board (NLTB). This would create greater efficiency, transparency and legal certainty over leases.
Governor Sir Phillip Mitchell hailed the decision of the indigenous people to give up direct control of their land as “one of the greatest acts of faith and trust in colonial history”.
It was also a landmark in governance in the vast British Empire.
Ratu Sukuna reportedly spoke of unmatched acts of goodwill and cooperation.
Fiji’s progress into one of the most economically-developed countries among the Pacific Islands is underpinned by what Ratu Sukuna put in place all those years ago.
Roads, housing, urban and city developments, industrial estates, manufacturing enterprises and other businesses, hotels and resorts and agricultural ventures, are established on native land through the system he conceived and brought to reality.
The NLTB (now iTaukei Land Trust Board) is presently going through a process of reform and improvement. The objective is to further lift its efficiency, especially in services to landowners, tenants and investors.
Most profiles of Ratu Sukuna’s career include references to his service in the First World War with the French Foreign Legion.
This young high chief of Fiji had to deal with the fear of violent death and injury that envelops most soldiers in war. But that did not stop him from rising to feats of conspicuous gallantry among the carnage of one of the deadliest conflicts in history.
His courage won him the Croix de Guerre and Medaille Militaire as he fought at the Battles of Champagne and Navarin. He was hospitalized after injuries he received in the latter action.
News media articles recounting some of the details of what he endured are rare.
Deryck Scarr’s book, Fiji: The Three Legged Stool, Selected Writings of Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, contains a number of personal accounts of what the chief saw as the “hell” of warfare.
In a letter to Ratu Epeli Gavidi Ganilau from the front, Ratu Sukuna made it clear he was not sure he would survive.
He signed off with: “I do not know whether we will meet again.”
I have read other parts of his correspondence that I reproduce for this message. This is not about glorifying war. What Ratu Sukuna went through speaks to us of why war must be condemned and rejected and, ideally, banished from the Earth. The extracts from his letters of terrible battles are truths of our history and cannot be ignored.
Our young people in particular should read them. They can feel pride in Ratu Sukuna’s exploits and courage. At the same time they can cite his experiences as reasons why the world deserves peace, not conflict, and why war is an abomination.
Ratu Sukuna was driven to enlist because the country that had taken Fiji under its wing was threatened. For him it was a matter of duty and loyalty. Although his application to join the British forces had been rejected, he was so determined to fight that he joined the French Foreign Legion.
In his correspondence with Ratu Epeli, who reportedly had wished to bear arms with him, Ratu Sukuna wrote that at Fort Navarin he was fortunate to have survived.
“For all of those around me were killed and none of us in the leading sections came back unscathed. The glory of that attack however went to those who followed us, for they overran and captured the German positions that night.”
The soldier chief wrote that the trenches where his side was positioned were “as big as the Jubilee Church in Suva”.
He related that bombs emitting yellowish blue smoke and others containing poisonous gas were fired at him and his comrades.
“…my eyes began to hurt terribly and tears were soon flowing from them.” Wearing goggles helped to ease his pain.
“It was impossible to raise our heads above the trench to fire at the enemy as bullets were flying all around us…so I just had to sit back …. and smoke.”
Ratu Sukuna wrote of a “pitiful” sight with many casualties lying fully stretched out or bundled up in the trenches. Some of them were crying and others moaning from the pain of their wounds.
“Our dead were heaped up by the sides of the communication trenches leading to our war trenches.”
German soldiers in a trench were told to surrender.
“No answer came and there was complete silence inside. One of our sergeants threw grenades through the entrance and all of a sudden the Germans cried out ‘Kamerade, Kamerade’ and begged for their lives to be spared. There were many prisoners of war taken that day.”
In correspondence with Ratu Epeli about another encounter, Ratu Sukuna wrote how attacking Germans were mowed down by heavy field guns and machine guns.
“I did not see one of them escape alive. If they had managed to reach our positions, I would probably not have been able to do anything as I was shaking all over. There was not much fighting spirit left.
“…during the time of the… charge I felt myself out of breath, running was difficult and there was little else to notice except perhaps those fallen behind. When we reached the enemy they were all weak and stunned by the effects of the blast from exploding shells…”
“I’m only describing what I’ve actually seen. The sight of blood causes pain in the stomach and sometimes it’s difficult to stop vomiting.”
In one action his American friend, the Legionnaire Henry Farnsworth, was killed beside him. Ratu Sukuna got so close to the enemy wire he could look into the eyes of the man who shot Farnsworth.
A citation attached to Ratu Sukuna’s award of the Croix de Guerre gave details of him taking many prisoners, and his “superb zeal and courage”.
Another citation recorded how he “charged a strongly entrenched German position with fixed bayonet and ran forward…covering a great distance in a single leap in spite of stubborn resistance by the enemy and in face of machine gun fire”.
Citation number three noted the “noblest qualities of courage and endurance”…with an “admirable spirit of sacrifice” when he charged a position that had to be taken. “In spite of the heavy fire from the enemy position he was able to break through right to the German trenches.”
He did not highlight these feats in his letters.
But he did ask that news of the wounds in the arms and head that had hospitalized him should be kept from the Fijian people. Two of his injuries were superficial. The third, he wrote, was caused by an explosive ball and would take longer to heal.
Ratu Sukuna put this dreadful conflict behind him, finished his university studies and embarked on a journey of service to Fiji that leaves us forever indebted to him.
Let us today imagine Ratu Sukuna’s spirit hovering over Fiji, willing us to walk together further along the road to reconciliation and peace.
Let us follow his advice of sacrificing if necessary community interests for the benefit of the whole.
May God bless Fiji on this day when we remember and honour one of our most illustrious chiefs.
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